Sebastian Vettel's Formula 1 championship hopes look all but over after being forced to retire early from the Japanese Grand Prix due to an engine issue, giving Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton a chance to take a huge step towards the title.

Trailing Hamilton by 34 points heading into the race, Vettel's Ferrari team was sent into a panic minutes before the start when a spark plug issue emerged, forcing it to make a replacement on the grid.

The team completed the fix so that Vettel could start the race, only for the German to report a lack of power and begin to lose a number of positions.

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A safety car called following a crash for Carlos Sainz Jr. allowed Vettel to hold on to sixth, only for the race to resume one lap later, with the Ferrari driver losing more and more places heading down the main straight.

Ferrari told Vettel to bring his car into the pits and retire from the racing, giving him a second non-score in the last three races, acting as another big blow to his title hopes.

Hamilton currently leads at Suzuka, with a potential victory extending his lead out to 59 points with 100 to play for heading to the United States Grand Prix.